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Denver voters cast ballots on Nov. 8, 2018 (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

In the first presidential debate, President Donald Trump urged his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully” for potential fraud.

Colorado allows election watchers at polling locations — a feature that officials say makes the state’s voting process transparent and secure — but not just anyone can watch the polls or the vote count. 

“It doesn’t work like that in Colorado,” said Pam Anderson, the executive director of the county clerks association. “We have extraordinarily transparent elections in Colorado, but we need to follow the regulations under state law.”

Here’s what you need to know to be a poll watcher.

Only certain people can appoint election watchers in Colorado.

To monitor a polling location during a general election in Colorado, you must be appointed by a political party, an issue committee affiliated with a ballot measure campaign or an unaffiliated or write-in candidate who is on the ballot.

To be eligible, you must be a registered Colorado voter. To represent a political party, you must be a member. In addition, candidates and their immediate families by blood or marriage (to the second degree) cannot be poll watchers for their campaign.

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Both major political parties are reporting increased interest in serving in this often-overlooked role this year. The Colorado Republican Party is recruiting volunteers as part of the “Army for Trump” website. And Democrats are notifying their members and activists, too.

“It’s something that people can do to ensure their vote is counted and the election is done safely,” said Joe Jackson, a spokesman for the state Republican Party.

Morgan Carroll, the state Democratic Party chairwoman, said her message to volunteers is simple: “Make sure that every vote counts and be part of democracy in action.” 

“People seem to be getting pretty immediately why it’s important,” she said.

All election watchers must attend a training to get certified. 

The training is free and available on the Secretary of State’s Office website. The major political parties also offer their own trainings.

The reason: The role is governed by detailed state laws and rules that outline what is allowed and not. You must take an “oath of watcher” to uphold the law.

Colorado allows election watchers to observe polling centers, ballot signature verification and vote counting. At the polls, watchers can challenge the eligibility of voters and assist in the correction of discrepancies.

“The poll watcher’s job is to make sure the law is followed and eligible voters can vote,” Carroll said. “That is how we see it and that’s how we train for it.”

Public health restrictions designed to limit the spread of coronavirus add another layer of requirements this year. Poll watchers, like election judges and other observers, must wear masks and adhere to social distancing, as well as undergo health screenings where required.

A poll watcher can’t see how you vote or disrupt the voting process.

An election watcher is not allowed to watch how you vote or even attempt to determine how people vote and must remain 6 feet from any voting equipment, voting booth or ballot box.

Any confidential information observed must not be disclosed, and the watchers are not allowed to take photos, video or audio at any polling location.

Likewise, any interference with the orderly operation of voting is prohibited under the law.

How it typically works: Election watchers take shifts and just watch

Organizing poll watchers is a huge undertaking for the political parties. Each party works to schedule one watcher at every voting center for every hour it’s open. It requires lots of volunteers, and both major parties are still recruiting people

In terms of the job, it’s a lot of watching. “Normally, it’s not a lot of activity. It’s more the nondrama that is usually the story,” said Carroll at the Democratic Party. “It’s very rare that something comes up. Our clerks are really generally professional and experienced at running elections no matter what their political party is.”

The Republican Party says it trains its volunteers to look for “common election security and integrity issues that have been reported in past elections and how to report things,” Jackson said without offering specifics.

The watchers who represent the political parties are told to report any potential issues with voters being turned away or other similar problems to attorneys who are standing by to take action if needed. “Poll watchers are your eyes and ears and they go to the legal team,” Carroll said.

What’s the point of being an election watcher?

The goal is transparency and to build trust in the voting process.

“They are yet another way in which we get to open up our process to the public,” said George Stern, the Jefferson County clerk. “Our elections are extremely accessible and extremely secure and we want to open the windows and show that to people. We are extremely proud of it.”

Stern said most of the watchers don’t see any problems that election officials didn’t already catch. He said only rarely do people show up and want to observe the process, as the president suggested. He expects more this year because of the attention, but only those who meet the requirements are allowed

In the first debate, Trump described a situation in Philadelphia where he says poll watchers were turned away, but that’s not exactly what happened. Carroll said the president’s suggestions in the debate about widespread voter fraud are dangerous.

“Anyone trying to promote fear is trying to suppress the vote,” she said. “We have a great election system and it’s easy and convenient. It’s transparent and it’s bipartisan.”

Jackson at the state Republican Party acknowledges voting problems are rare in Colorado. “The majority of the time there is nothing to report,” he said, “but if something does happen you are there to make a difference and report it.”

The Colorado Sun’s coverage of election administration is produced in part with support from a grant from the American Press Institute.

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.